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1.4: Data Collection and Analysis

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    Theories are perspectives or viewpoints. Without facts, theories are simply ideas or things believed to be true though not proven. The research process is a method for gathering facts. The purpose of social research is to investigate and provide insight into how human societies function (Griffiths, et al. 2015). Social research includes empirical evidence and the scientific method resulting in an interpretive perspective based on theoretical foundation.

    There are several research methods sociologists use to collect data or gather information about people. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses specific to the type of data collected and its usefulness. Every method collects certain types of information (quantitative or qualitative) on particular sample sizes (number of people of study). Quantitative data is numeric or statistical information. Quantitative data reflects social patterns of behavior with numbers and figures. Qualitative data is descriptive evidence. Qualitative data interprets personal accounts, narratives, and stories to depict social patterns. There are eight commonly used data collection methods to gather quantitative and/or qualitative data about people.


    This image "Close-up of Computer Keyboard" by Pixabay is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    A survey or questionnaire is a series of questions. Before developing and disseminating a survey, sociologists must determine the target group or population of study. Once a population is selected, the researcher must determine the sample or individuals from the target group that will be examined. The best method to get a representative sample is to obtain a random sample. This will allow everyone from the target group an equal chance of being selected for the study. When a researcher wants to target subsets of a group, they can generate a stratified random sample.

    Survey questions must be developed in neutral language. Questions must allow respondents or participants to express their own opinions and respond to the survey to avoid biased answers.

    When designing a research study, researchers must decide whether to use closed-ended or open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions allow respondents or participants to answer questions from a list of possible answers. Open-ended questions allow respondents or participants to answer questions in their own words.

    Surveys are a good method for collecting quantitative data from large populations or groups. Administering a survey requires little to no direct contact with study subjects, meaning researchers spend less or little face-to-face time gathering data from people in comparison to other types of data collection methods. This method is limited to numeric or statistical analysis with narrow insight into the meaning or reasons behind responses or answers given by the participants.

    Table 2. Effective Focus of the Most Common Data Collection Methods. Attribution: Copyright Vera Kennedy, West Hills College Lemoore, under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

    Research Method

    Data Collection Focus



    Participant Observation






    Case Study


    Secondary and Document Analysis


    Unobtrusive Measures


    Participant observation is the act of observing participants in the research setting. Here the researcher studies the group as a member of the group. Being a participant allows the researcher to observe and gain intimate insights into the ensemble and its members to develop a deep understanding of those involved. The primary challenge of this method is to avoid researcher bias from personal interactions and involvement as a member of the group.

    An interview is a conversation with study participants. The research interviewer develops a series of questions to ask study subjects. Interviews gather people’s thoughts, opinions, feelings, and biographies to help understand personal experiences and social patterns. Interviewers must develop rapport with participants to create a safe environment for sharing personal information and stories. This qualitative method is time consuming and widely used for collecting data from small groups or individuals.

    Ethnography involves both participant observation and interview research methods. This technique allows the researcher to collect in-depth information about the observations made through formal (structured interview) and informal interactions (participant observation). The researcher is able to receive information about the intentions, motivations, or thoughts of the study participants. This approach reduces researcher bias and ensures focused analysis of social patterns verifiable by personal accounts of others.

    Case studies involve a researcher focusing on a single event, situation, or individual to understand the dynamics of relationships (Henslin 2011). This in-depth qualitative method requires one-on-one longitudinal time with study subjects. The focus centers on understanding the personal biographies and accounts of individuals. Researchers must develop rapport and trust with participants over time to invoke open and honest truth telling about personal accounts and experiences.

    Secondary and document analysis is a research method used to analyze data or information collected by another person or party. Secondary analysis may include a review of documents or written sources including books, newspapers, records, etc. (Henslin 2011). The limitations of this method center on the data collection approach and credibility of the source. Researchers cannot alter the data collection method to ensure validity and reliability as well as make changes to the type and focus of information gathered.

    Unobtrusive measures are the act of “observing the behavior of people who do not know they are being studied” (Henslin 2011:26). Study subjects are unaware they are being examined. Researchers must take caution in using this approach. When appropriately employed, unobtrusive studies provide useful quantitative data for specific sites, environments, or contexts studied. However, information gathered using this method is not reliable for developing generalizations about social patterns. Additionally, researchers must protect identifying information during data collection to avoid violations of privacy, confidentiality and anonymity among study subjects.


    A useful research approach for sociological practitioners to apply in the workplace is observational research. This approach provides a practitioner to observe behavior in a natural setting.

    1. Conduct an investigation on unobtrusive and obtrusive observations. Describe each research approach and explain how data is observed and collected.
    2. What is the difference between obtrusive and unobtrusive observations?
    3. Explain the positive aspects of applying an observational research approach to examine human social life.
    4. Explain the negative aspects of applying an observational research approach to examine human social life.
    5. Describe how a public sociologist and an applied sociologist would use observational research in her or his job to assess and solve social problems.

    Experiments determine cause and effect relationships (Henslin 2011). In an experiment, there is an experimental and control group. The experimental group receives a variable, factor, or change while the control group receives no adjustments in order to compare the impact of variances or alterations between groups. A variable that causes a change is the independent variable, whereas the variable that depends on another variable to change is the dependent variable. Experiments help understand the relationship between independent and dependent variables.

    There are several limitations of experiments as a research method. Conducting an experiment is expensive (e.g., space, materials, participant incentives, etc.) and time consuming. Replicating experiments and experimental conditions is challenging. Similar to unobtrusive measures, generalizations based on results are not possible. That is, inferences from the study are not applicable to other individuals or groups beyond those in the experiment. Findings are relevant to those in the study only. In addition, researchers have little to no control over extraneous variables that may influence participant bias or results leading to artificial conclusions.


    Think about a social problem you want to impact. Align each research method with the type or variety of data categories and information you can gather by applying the technique to help you assess the problem and develop possible solutions.


    This page titled 1.4: Data Collection and Analysis is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vera Kennedy.

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